The boys act immediately when they hear Finny fall down the stairs. While Brinker makes sure that nobody moves Finny’s body, other boys run to get Dr. Stanpole and Mr. Latham, the wrestling coach who knows first aid. At one point, Brinker tells Gene to get a blanket for Finny. When he comes back, he gives the blanket to Mr. Latham and watches him wrap it around Finny, wishing all the while that he could be the person to do this. However, he knows that this might make Finny even angrier at him.
All Gene wants is to be close to his friend, who means the world to him. He deeply regrets what he did that fateful summer evening in the tree, but has no way of taking it back. Instead, he’s forced into the role of a tragic spectator as Finny’s life continues its downward spiral—a spiral that can be traced directly back to Gene himself.
When Dr. Stanpole arrives, he carefully places Finny in a chair and assembles a group to carry him away. As Finny goes, Gene watches his serene face, sensing that he isn’t used to needing help from others. Just before Dr. Stanpole follows the group out of the building, he tells Gene that Finny has broken his leg again. This time, though, the break isn’t quite as messy.
Gene admires Finny’s stoicism, noting that his best friend is unused to relying so heavily on other people. Normally a self-sufficient person, he now must depend upon others, a change that only emphasizes the extent to which Gene’s actions have changed his life.
Gene doesn’t want to go back to his empty dorm room. Instead, he sneaks into the infirmary and crouches beneath the window, hearing Dr. Stanpole and the nurse work on Finny. At one point, he thinks of how Mr. Latham always tells people to give things “the old college try,” and he imagines him saying this to Finny as Dr. Stanpole attends to him. This makes Gene laugh wildly, and he worries that they’ll hear him. However, his laughter later turns to tears. Sobbing, he hears Dr. Stanpole’s car drive away, so he stands up and tries to enter Finny’s room through the window. Immediately, Finny asks who’s there, and when Gene tries to explain why he’s come, Finny accuses him of wanting to give him yet another broken bone. He then flails his arms, his torso falling off the bed.
Throughout the novel, Finny has denied the fact that Gene intentionally injured him. Now, though, he lashes out at his best friend, suddenly distrustful and appalled that Gene would ever have wanted him to fall from the tree. Finally, then, Gene must face the scorn he has deserved all along.
Gene watches as Finny lifts his torso back onto the bed. Gene then slips out the window again, walking through the New Hampshire dark. As he walks around campus, he feels as if Devon exists separately from him, as if he himself is part of a dream and doesn’t truly belong to his surroundings. When he awakens the following morning, he is underneath a ramp that leads to the Devon stadium’s door. Returning to his room, he finds a note from Dr. Stanpole asking him to bring Finny’s clothing to the infirmary, so he prepares a suitcase for his friend and sets off. On his way, he tries to make himself feel better by thinking of the war, contemplating the fact that a broken leg, in the grand scheme of things, is a minor travesty compared to the atrocities of battle.
Whereas Gene once felt as if Devon’s environment afforded him a certain kind of “separate peace” from the rest of the world, he now feels unable to re-enter this mindset. Accordingly, Devon itself suddenly seems foreign to him, as if he can’t fully exist within it now that he has lost his innocence. Accordingly, his thoughts turn to the war, helping him place Finny’s injuries into the greater context of the outside world, though it’s doubtful that this makes him feel any less guilty for harming his friend.
At the infirmary, Finny tells Gene where to put the suitcase. His tone is matter-of-fact, but Gene notices that his hands are shaking as he inspects the contents of the suitcase. Seeing this, Gene says that he tried to tell Finny the truth when he visited him at home, and Finny assures him that he remembers. He then asks why Gene came to the infirmary the previous night, and Gene admits that he doesn’t know, other than that he had the overwhelming sense that he “belonged” in the ward with Finny. For a long time, the two boys simply look at each other. Finny’s expression suggests that he knows exactly what Gene means but doesn’t want to say so. Instead, he blurts out that he wishes there wasn’t a war happening because he won’t be able to contribute.
Gene felt as if he “belonged” in the infirmary because he has spent the entire academic year trying to embody Finny’s identity. Together, they have worked to intertwine their lives. What’s more, Gene sees himself as the reason that Finny is in the infirmary, thereby adding to his sense that he should be lying in bed with a broken leg. When he says this, Finny sees that Gene still cares about him, despite the fact that he purposefully caused his fall. And though he hasn’t said it yet, it’s obvious that he is going to forgive Gene, since he seems to understand what his friend is saying.
Finny tells Gene that he has been writing to various military branches all year, desperately trying to find a way to join World War II. Everyone he wrote to, though, refused to take him because of his leg. This is why he has spent so much time trying to deny the existence of the war, hoping that this would help him put the matter out of his mind. To make him feel better, Gene tells Finny that he wouldn’t be any good in a war anyway, since he’d make friends with the other side, teach them English, and start a baseball game. As he says this, Finny begins to smile despite himself, though this turns to tears. He then asks if it was just a “blind impulse” that led Gene to bounce him out of the tree, and Gene assures him that it was, hoping that he’ll believe him.
In this scene, Finny finally admits that his theory about the war has been nothing but a distraction, something to help take his mind off the fact that he can’t become a solider. More importantly, though, he shows his capacity for forgiveness, demonstrating that what he cares about most is that Gene didn’t want to do him wrong. Of course, Gene says that he never meant anything by his impulsive actions, and while this might be true, readers also know that Gene struggled with envy and resentment in the days leading up to the fall. Consequently, it’s difficult to say whether or not Gene is actually telling the truth when he says that his actions weren’t personal. Nonetheless, it’s clear that he deeply regrets what he did.
Finny tells Gene that he does believe him when he says there was nothing personal about what he did in the tree. What matters most to Finny, he admits, is that Gene didn’t feel a sense of hate toward him. Again, Gene assures him that this isn’t what led him to bounce the limb, though he doesn’t know how to show him this. Crying, Finny says that he already believes him.
Again, Finny demonstrates his capacity to prioritize friendship over all else, proving that his relationship with Gene means more to him than anything. The tragedy, of course, is that this hasn’t always been the case for Gene, who allowed his jealousy and false sense of rivalry to hurt the one person who cares so much for him.
After Gene and Finny make up, Dr. Stanpole tells Gene to come back to the infirmary around 5 that evening. By then he will have re-set the bone in Finny’s leg, and Finny will just be waking up from the anesthesia. For the rest of the day, Gene goes to class and focuses on his studies, eagerly watching the clock. When evening approaches, he makes his way back to the infirmary and sits on a bench in the hall. After he’s been waiting for quite some time, Dr. Stanpole emerges with his head down and his hands in his pockets. He then tells Gene that boys his age are going to have to face bad news quite a lot, so he will have to get used to what he’s about to hear. “Your friend is dead,” he says.
The shock of Finny’s death is somewhat softened by the knowledge that Gene returns to Devon as an adult and stares sadly at the stairs and the tree, hinting at the fact that he can’t visit Finny himself. Still, this news is devastating, especially since Finny and Gene have finally addressed the only thing threatening their relationship. Having cleared the air, the two boys set themselves up to continue their beautiful connection—and then Finny is yanked away.
Dr. Stanpole says that setting Finny’s bone should have been a simple procedure and, for that reason, he saw no need to send him to a real hospital. However, a small amount of Finny’s bone marrow must have leaked into his bloodstream, because his heart stopped without warning. Losing himself to emotion, Dr. Stanpole says that the operating room always presents certain risks, just like war. He then laments the fact that such things have to happen to young boys like Gene and Finny. Having heard this news, Gene does not cry, nor does he cry at Finny’s funeral, since he feels as if he’s attending his own funeral, and one does not cry at such a time.
Again, Knowles allows Gene and Finny’s identities to merge, as Gene can’t bring himself to cry for Finny because doing so would feel like crying for himself. After all, this is what he has lost: a part of himself. That he will have to face similar realities in the future (because of the war and, of course, the general nature of mortality) does nothing to make this loss any easier, but Gene doesn’t show his emotions, perhaps knowing that no amount of crying will bring Finny back. In other words, he recognizes the harsh reality of what has just happened instead of denying it like he and Finny often denied other unfortunate circumstances.